Thursday, October 20, 2011

Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health

I can eat less meat.  But cheese?

Did everyone already hear about the Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health, published by Environmental Working Group in July earlier this year? So it's kind of old news, but I've been meaning to write about it ever since, and sort of chewing on what it should mean for my family's eating habits.

The report has an impressive methodology:  "EWG teamed up with CleanMetrics, an environmental analysis and consulting firm, to calculate complete lifecycle assessments of the “cradle-to-grave” carbon footprint of 20 types of conventionally raised (not organic or grass-fed) meat, fish, dairy and vegetable proteins, counting emissions generated both before and after the food leaves the farm. These assessments included every step of the food cycle, from the pesticides and fertilizers used to grow animal feed through to the grazing, processing, transportation, cooking and finally, disposal of unused food" (from news release).

For those who haven't had a chance to check out the guide for themselves yet (the link lingered in my bookmarks for months before I browsed the full report), here are some highlights:  
  • Eating and wasting less meat (especially red meat) and cheese can simultaneously improve our health and reduce the climate and environmental impact of food. Amazingly, meat that goes into the trash accounts for more than 20 percent of all meat-associated emissions!
  • When you do eat meat, eat smaller portions and opt for meat from organic, pasture-raised, grass-fed animals. There are many compelling health, environmental and animal-welfare reasons for doing so.
  • Making significant cuts in emissions will not come solely from individual action, but also citizen action.  Reducing meat production’s negative impacts on soil, air and water will take stronger regulatory enforcement and better policies – in addition to significant changes in meat consumption habits.

A really cool feature of the report is the Eat Smart graphic, which compares how food choices affect the climate.  I need to print this out and paste it to my fridge.  The report also includes quick aids such as At-a-glance brochure that summarizes the full report; interactive Lifecycle GraphicTips for Meat Eaters; Meat Quiz ("How much do you know about the meat you eat?"); guide to Decoding Meat and Dairy Labels; and additional resources. You can also sign a pledge to go meatless one day of the week (a la Meatless Monday).

For me, it was no big surprise that:
Beef generates more than twice the emissions of pork, nearly four times that of chicken, and more than 13 times that of vegetable proteins such as beans, lentils, and tofu.
But I was kind of bummed to learn that:
Cheese has the third-highest emissions (more than pork, fish, and poultry!). Less dense cheese (such as cottage) results in fewer greenhouse gases since it takes less milk to produce it.
At my house, the only meat we regularly eat is organic chicken and ground turkey.  We occasionally eat pork, fish, and even more occasionally grass-fed beef purchased through our CSA.  We regularly eat beans and tofu. So I feel OK about the progress we've made in the meat-eating department since we began our green journey. But the sad truth is, while I can imagine someday eating vegetarian, I have a hard time imagining giving up dairy.  I love my milk, yogurt, ice cream, butter, cream, sour cream, buttermilk, and, yes, CHEESE.  I love cheese.  Parmesan cheese, extra sharp cheddar cheese, havarti cheese, mozzarella cheese.  Recently, I did switch over from conventional cheese to almost all organic cheese, and the significantly higher sticker price has made me more aware of how much we are eating (and far less likely to let any of it go to waste).

I would say that at least one-third of our dinners around here are meatless.  But you know how I compensate for that?  Cheese. Or sour cream. Especially with beans (the tofu dishes tend to lean more towards vegan).  In addition to sprinkling a little less cheese on my meatless dishes, any suggestions for cutting back on the cheese without too much pain and suffering?

How has your consumption of animal products changed since you began your green journey?


Green Bean said...

The cheese really gets me! I'm a lifelong vegetarian so that is no issue but giving up dairy? Ack!

We definitely do what you do - sprinkle less cheese. I also tend to do more meals without dairy at all. Thai and Indian are often dairy free. We do spring rolls with whatever veggies are in the produce bin plus rice noodles and everyone fills their own according to their own taste.

For protein, I'll toss in (1) nuts in Indian dishes or stir fries, (2) eggs in Thai dishes or stews, (3) beans in Mexican, stir fry, stews and (4) rarely, I'll use tofu. Not because I don't like it but because all the pressing and stuff can be a PITA.

Tanya @ Lovely Greens said...

Hmmm...I think the Eat Smart Graphic must be tailored to the American market? For example, the information regarding lamb can't be correct for the UK and definitely not here on the IoM where most of it is raised locally and on grass. I'd be really interested to see how the information was compiled - especially for the veggies. There's a huge difference in food miles between seasonal veg purchased at the farmers market to tomatoes and broccoli being flown here from Spain or Mexico...

Dea-chan said...

Um, maybe check who you're buying it from and where they buy their milk? We buy Cabot and I feel fairly confident about them.

ALSO, I feel fabulous learning that when you grate cheese, even cheese you'd normally slice, it lasts longer.

But I'm sure that's only news to me. :-P

But I'd second Green Bean's recommendations for alternate sources of protein.

Betsy (Eco-Novice) said...

Tanya, I took a look at the Methodology ( and it appears that the LCA for lamb is based on operations in Idaho and Ohio. I think the Eat Smart graphic is based on conventional U.S. choices in general -- it would be interesting to see how organic veggies or organic chicken stacked up there. since we know that it always help carbon emissions by choosing local, as you suggest.

Dea-chan, from what I read, cheese is so high up b/c it uses so much milk to produce it (compared to other dairy products). Once again, I'm sure eating locally and organic helps. I believe the graphic is based on conventional food products. It would be interesting to see how organic and/or grass-fed cheese stacked up -- I'm guessing legumes are still easier on the planet as a source of protein.

We do buy organic cheese now, but I have yet to find a local source. I'm hoping my CSA will add it as an option soon!

Green Bean, I use extra-firm tofu about once a week in stir fries. I slice a block into 4 rectangles, wrap them in a dish towel (maybe with something on top if there is something handy around) for however long it takes me to do other prep/ preheat pan, dice up the rectangles and fry them up. Definitely less work than making beans from scratch! My sister never presses tofu -- just lets the pan force the moisture to evaporate (but she's using a nonstick pan).

Farmer's Daughter said...

Since we started down this path, we:
-raise our own pigs, 100% of our pork
-raise our own turkeys, 75% of the turkey we eat
-raise our own chicken, maybe 10-20% of the chicken we eat (we eat a lot of chicken!)
-buy chicken from a local source for another 10-20% of the chicken we eat
-buy a half-cow, providing about 75% of the beef we eat
-eat fish that my husband catches, 100% of our fish consumption excluding salmon because they don't live in the wild around here

We've actually decided to stop buying the half cow because we get so much beef and most of it is ground beef, chuck roasts or stew meat, and we don't need to eat all of that beef. We decided it'll be better for our health if we just buy the cuts we want and eat less beef altogether.

I try to buy cheese from local producers. I'm not surprised about the emissions, after all it comes from cows, and I would estimate that conventional dairy cows need more energy each day than beefers, which just adds up.

As you can see, we tend to opt-out of the industrial meat system as much as we can, for a variety of reasons. For me, it's mostly about animal welfare. If I can see, pet and talk to the animals, I know that they had happy lives and were taken care of.

Rosa said...

The dairy is our weakness, too.

For taste, the best way to substitute is to either use a stronger-tasting cheese (but maybe that's not using less really, since the aged cheese have shrunk more? I don't honestly know) or add more fat & salt when you cook in the first place. For a lot of kid-favorite cheese like mozzarella, colby, and queso fresco, the main flavor is salt anyway.

But we still eat a LOT of cheese. I can't believe it's carbon-heavier than poultry! ACK.

Lisa Sharp said...

I can't give up cheese, it's one of the few ways I get protein and b12 (which I'm always low on and may have to start getting shots). I am a flexitarian (semi-vegetarian) and only eat meat if I know where it came from and how it was raised. Local, naturally raised meat has a much lower environmental impact and I know it's raised humanely.

We eat bison for our red meat as it's much healthier and easy to find locally.

I don't do soy because it's almost always GMO, is highly processed and has been linked to increased estrogen levels. We have so much estrogen already from other causes and soy is in EVERYTHING so I won't add it to my diet.

When we have meat it's just a small amount in other food. I do make bison burgers once a month but I make them smaller than a lot of people do.

Local and organic meats aren't cheap so that is added encouragement not to eat much of it.

Betsy (Eco-Novice) said...

My sister told me she often uses avocado instead of cheese -- what a great substitute. Kind of fills that creamy quota.

Farmer's Daughter, I think it is so awesome that you are so close to the source of your animal products. Really cool! I would love that to be me.

Lisa, sounds like you are a very conscientious animal products consumer -- I aspire to that as well.


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